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Broadcast Legend Bill Moyers on Media Reform: “Democracy Only Works When Ordinary People Claim It as Their Own”

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More than 3,500 people gathered in Minneapolis this weekend for the fourth annual National Conference for Media Reform, organized by the group Free Press. The thousands of participants took part in panel discussions and strategized on efforts to fight media consolidation and democratize the airwaves. We play the electrifying keynote address by legendary journalist Bill Moyers. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 3,500 people gathered this weekend in Minneapolis for the fourth annual National Conference for Media Reform. The thousands of participants took part in panel discussions and strategized about efforts to fight media consolidation and democratize the airwaves. The three-day event was organized by the media reform group Free Press.

The highlight of the weekend was the keynote address by legendary broadcaster, Bill Moyers, host of the weekly PBS program Bill Moyers Journal. Moyers was one of the founding organizers of the Peace Corps, press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson, publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News and a producer of many groundbreaking series on public television. He won more than thirty Emmys and is the author of four bestselling books. His latest, just out, is called Moyers on Democracy. On Saturday morning, Bill Moyers took to the stage and addressed the packed convention auditorium.

    BILL MOYERS: The media reform movement was actually born on my show five years ago when Bob McChesney and John Nichols appeared to talk about their new book, Our Media, Not Theirs. Bob was — Bob and John were so insightful, so compelling, so fair, so intense, they just melted the screen, and our email boards and our phones at our office lighted up. Pat Mitchell, the president of PBS, called me the next day and said, “I want a hundred copies of that book to send to every member of the PBS board and others.” Editors from all over the country called and said, “That’s exactly what’s happening to our work here at our local places.”

    We knew we had to do something about it. And Bob and John moved into action. The result was, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy was behind them. Many of you — many other foundations came in. And as a result of that, the media reform movement today has become what Richard Landry of the Independent Press Association calls one of the most significant citizens’ movement to a merge in this new century, a movement to challenge the stranglehold of mega media corporations over our press and to build alterative and independent sources of news and information that people can trust.

    Here we are again, and our numbers are growing. We were 1,700 in Madison four years ago, 2,500 in St. Louis a year later, 3,200 in Memphis last year, and now here in St. Paul we’re 3,500 and counting. That’s amazing.

    By the way, one we’re pleased to count is my son, William Cope Moyers. Some of you know him. He’s become a national spokesman for the treatment and recovery movement. He’s the vice president of the Hazelden Foundation, that remarkable treatment and recovery center here in Minnesota, which is a recovering states. His book about our family’s experiences in his long ordeal of combating this disease of addiction — his book is called Broken — became a bestseller last year. And his message is the same one that the media reform message proclaims so consistently, that nothing is ever broken that can’t be fixed if enough people are committed. You — by the way, he’s going to come and help me sign my books after this is over. I’ve already helped him sign his.

    You represent millions of Americans who see media consolidation as a corrosive social force. It robs them of their voice in public affairs, pollutes the political culture and turns the debate over profound issues into a shouting match of polarized views promulgated by partisan apologists who trivialize democracy while refusing to speak the truth about how our country is being plundered.

    The patriarch of your movement warned a generation ago of what was coming. In his magisterial book, Media Monopoly, Ben Bagdikian wrote, quote, “The result of the overwhelming power of relatively narrow corporate ideologies has been the creation of widely established political and economic illusions with little visible contradictions in the media to which a majority of the people is exclusively exposed.” In other words, what we need to know to make democracy work for all Americans is compromised by media institutions deeply embedded in the power structures of society.

    Whether employing professional journalists trained at prestigious universities or polemicists whose ignorance, arrogance and malevolence serve partisan agendas, our dominant media are ultimately accountable only to corporate boards whose mission is not life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for the whole body of our republic, but the aggrandizement of corporate executives and shareholders; organizations whose self-styled mandate is not holding public and private power accountable so that there is an equilibrium in society, but aggregating their interlocking interests; organizations whose reward comes not from helping fulfill the social compact embodied in the notion of “We, the people,” but from the manufacturing of news and information as profitable consumer commodities, rather than the means to empower morally responsible citizens.

    What does it matter? Why a media anyway? I’m going to let an old Cherokee chief answer that. I heard this story a long time ago, growing up in Choctaw County in Oklahoma before we moved to Texas, of the tribal elder who was telling his grandson about the battle the old man was waging within himself. He said, “It is between two wolves, my son. One is an evil wolf: anger, envy, sorrow, greed, self-pity, guilt, resentment, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is the good wolf: joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The boy took this in for a few minutes and then said to his father — to his grandfather, “Which wolf won?” The old Cherokee replied simply, “The one I feed.” Democracy is that way. The wolf that wins is the one we feed. And media provides the fodder.

    So it is that democracy without honest information creates the illusion of popular consent while enhancing the power of the state and the privileged interests protected by it. Democracy without accountability creates the illusion of popular control while offering ordinary Americans only cheap tickets to the balcony, too far away to see that the public stage has become just a reality TV set. Nothing more characterizes corporate media today, mainstream and partisan, than disdain toward the fragile nature of modern life and indifference toward the complex social debate required of a free and self-governing people.

    This leaves you with a heavy burden. It is up to you to fight for the freedom that makes all other freedoms possible. In fact, I want to ask you to do something right now. I want you to stand up just a moment. Please, stand up. Now, turn to a neighbor to your left or neighbor to your right. Look that person in the eye. Shake hands. Shake hands, come on. Now turn to the person on the other side. Look that person in the eye. Shake hands. Now, see? Keep standing. You’re surrounded by kindred spirits. Remember — remember this when you go home and continue the fight. Hold your neighbors’ presence and this moment in your heart, and keep reminding yourself, “I’m not alone in this movement.”

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary broadcaster Bill Moyers, giving the keynote address at the National Conference for Media Reform. We’ll come back to the speech in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to Bill Moyers giving the keynote address in Minneapolis this weekend at the National Conference for Media Reform.

    BILL MOYERS: And with strength comes success. It was just five years ago that millions of Americans, aroused by the nascent movement of which you’re a part, bombarded Washington to protest the FCC’s decision to radically lower the barriers to corporate media consolidation. Last year, the Bush administration tried again. Their majority on the FCC resurrected the plan to permit one company to control our large cities’ newspaper and broadcast stations. Those stalwart servants of the public interest, Commissioner Michael Copps and Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, once again, of course, they dissented, and once again, the vigorous protest that you created rocked the cozy confines of the media ownership elite, so that last month, the Senate, on a bipartisan vote assembled by Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota overwhelmingly passed a resolution of disapproval countering the FCC’s decision. But even as we meet, the administration is pressing to give the conglomerates more control, from newspapers and broadcast television to satellite radio, to rewarding some of the most valuable remaining swaths of our public airwaves to two of the largest telecommunications companies, to mergers and acquisitions by the biggest digital media giants.

    Inspired by Free Press, Save the Internet, a bipartisan coalition, has become crucial to the fight to keep the worldwide web a bastion of free speech. For example — for example, when the cable giant Comcast, which has just bought my old newspaper Newsday, tried this spring to pack an FCC hearing room on network neutrality by literally hiring strangers off the street to ensure that advocates of net neutrality would not be able to participate, Save the Internet and its supporters helped expose the ruse. Soon after, there was a new hearing, this time without the gerrymandering seating by opponents of an open internet. Now Congressman Ed Markey has introduced a bill to advance network neutrality, and it’s also become an issue in the presidential campaign.

    Be vigilant. Be vigilant. The fate of the cyber-commons is up for grabs here, the future of the mobile web and the benefits of the internet as open architecture. We’ll lose that fight without you, because the antidote, the only antidote, to the power of organized money in Washington is the power of organized people at the net roots. Example: when Verizon tried to censor NARAL’s use of text messaging last year, it was quick action by your coalition that led the company to reverse its position. Your efforts also led to an FCC proceeding on this issue. So, be vigilant. Wherever the internet flows, on PCs, cell phones, mobile devices and very soon a new digital television set, we must assure that it remains an open and nondiscriminatory medium of expression, what our friend Jeff Chester calls truly a digital democracy.

    But it’s going to take more than just hopes that the new media will deliver up what we have never fully realized with the old. And the clock is ticking. By 2011, the market analysts tell us, the internet will surpass newspapers in advertising revenues. With MySpace and Dow Jones controlled by Rupert Murdoch, Microsoft determined to acquire Yahoo!, and with advertisers already telling some bloggers, “Your content is unacceptable,” we could see the potential loss of what’s now considered an unstoppable long tail of content offering abundant, new, credible and sustainable sources of news and information.

    Advertisers have already aggressively seized the new online world to go back into the programming business themselves, creating what’s called branded content. Imagine the Camel News Caravan revived, but this time online as a sponsored YouTube channel. Already, newspapers and magazines, and soon television, are encouraged to sell keywords to advertisers in the online versions of stories. Can you imagine advertisers going for stories with keywords such as “healthcare reform,” “environmental degradation,” “Iraqi casualties,” “contracting fraud” or “K Street lobbyists”? I don’t think so.

    So what will happen to news in the future, as the already tattered boundaries between journalism and advertising is dispensed with entirely and as content programming, commerce and online communities are rolled into one profitably attractive package? Last year, the investment firm of Piper Jaffray predicted that much of the business model for new media would be just that kind of hybrid. They called it “communitainment.” “Communitainment.” O, George Orwell, where are you now that we need you?

    Here, I wanted, very briefly, to implore you to take up the cause of public broadcasting as one of your priorities in this digital age. I know, I know, public broadcasting is deeply flawed, too bland, too timid, too risk-free, too marginalized by tribalism and the furies of political and ideological pressures. But it remains, with community broadcasting, the one national programming service — national programming service — ostensibly free of commercials and commercial values. I was present at its creation. I spent most of my adult life in its vineyards. And I still believe it could yet fulfill the promise held out for it by the visionary E.B. White, who forty years ago imagined it addressing itself to the ideal of excellence, not to the idea of acceptability, and devoted to restating and clarifying the social dilemma and the political pickle.

    In some ways, public broadcasting has lived up to its potential, and in other ways, it has not. But our shortfalls have been due largely to the longstanding softness of funding and policy support, continued attacks on our editorial independence, and by the struggle to survive, which is a great leveler. In this area of deregulation, the myth of the marketplace — the myths of the marketplace have prospered, as our opponents agree that the private system really can provide all that is necessary or that the public interest is what the public is interested in. So as the commercial voice of the mega media companies has been loud, strident, threatening and clear, the voice of public broadcasting has become a relatively small whisper.

    Neither Congress nor the FCC have seen fit to provide public media the requisite policy support. But as you know so well, by comparison, the private, commercial cable, DBS and telecommunications industries have been able to use their vast resources to shape the public agenda. And as a result, their operations have been almost totally deregulated. They’ve been given substantial public assets at no cost and with few obligations to their licenses. And they’ve been allowed to integrate vertically and to consolidate ownership across radio, television and newspapers. Against that mighty armada of power and influence, public broadcasting has had little to work with.

    But you can make a difference. I’m not asking for uncritical support. The strength of Free Press as an organization is its independence from its funders and from even its friends. Those of us inside the public broadcasting system must put our own house in order, show courage, reveal to America the real faces of a pluralistic society of many colors, origins, accents and interests, and hold steady to high standards of excellence, providing a real alternative to the dominant and dumbed-down media. You should keep our feet to the fire, insist from us accountability of the highest order, demand that we live up to our potential as public broadcasting. What we need is your strong support, not as a lapdog, but as a watchdog.

    Now, you know as well as I that all across the media landscape the health of our democracy is imperiled. Buffeted by gale force winds of technological, political and demographic forces, without a truly free and independent press, this 250-year-old experiment in self-government will not make it. I am no romantic about journalism. Some of my best friends are journalists. We are all fallen creatures, like everyone else. But I believe more fervently than ever that as journalism goes, so goes democracy.

    Yet as mergers and buyouts change both old and new media, bring a frenzied focus on cost-cutting, while fattening the pockets of the new owners and their investors, we are seeing journalism degraded through the layoffs and buyouts of legions of reporters and editors. Advertising Age reports that US media employment has fallen to a fifteen-year low. The Los Angeles Times alone has experienced a withering series of resignations by editors who refused to turn a red pencil into an editorial scalpel.

    The new owner of the Tribune Company, the real estate mogul Sam Zell, recently toured his new property, the Los Angeles Times newsroom, telling employees that the challenge is: how do we get somebody 126 years old to get it up? “Well,” said Zell, “I’m your Viagra.” I’m not making this up. He told his journalists that he didn’t have an editorial agenda or a perspective about newspapers’ roles as civic institutions. “I’m a businessman,” he said. “All that matters in the end is the bottom line.” Just this week, Zell told Wall Street analysts that to save money he intends to eliminate 500 pages of news a week across all of the company’s twelve papers. That can mean eliminating some eighty-two pages every week just from the Los Angeles Times. What will he use to replace reporters and editors? He says to the Wall Street analysts, “I’ll use maps, graphics, lists, rankings and stats.” Sounds to me as if Sam has confused Viagra with Lunesta.

    If you missed it, pull up the deceptive but disheartening eulogy for journalism written as an op-ed earlier this year by former Baltimore Sun journalist and creator of HBO’s The Wire, David Simon. Writing in the Washington Post, Simon explained: “Is there a separate elegy to be written for that generation of newspapermen and women who came of age after Vietnam, after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? For us starry-eyed acolytes of a glorious new church, all of us secular and cynical and dedicated to the notion that though we would still be stained with ink, we were no longer quite wretches? Where is our special requiem?

    “Bright and shiny we were in the late 1970s, packed into our bursting journalism schools, dog-eared paperback copies of All the President’s Men and The Powers That Be atop our Associated Press stylebooks. No business school called to us, no engineering lab, no information-age computer degree — we had seen a future of substance in bylines and column inches. Immortality lay in a five-part series with sidebars in the Tribune, the Sun, the Register, the Post, the Express.”

    But it’s not just about us journalists. Simon goes on to chronicle the effect that crosscutting and consolidation has had in the business and on the communities where those businesses have made so much money. He says, “I did not encounter a sustained period in which anyone endeavored to spend what it would actually cost to make the Baltimore Sun the most essential and deep-thinking and well-written account of life in central Maryland. The people you needed to gather for that kind of storytelling were ushered out the door, buyout after buyout.”

    Or pull up the perceptive analysis on the state of newspaper journalism in the recent New Yorker written by my good friend Eric Alterman. Quote: “It is impossible not to wonder what will become of not just news but democracy itself, in a world in which we can no longer depend on newspapers to invest their unmatched resources and professional pride in helping the rest of us to learn, however imperfectly, what we need to know.” What we need to know.

    For example, we needed to know the truth about Iraq. The truth could have spared that country from rack and ruin, saved thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and freed hundreds of billions of dollars for investment in the American economy and infrastructure. But as Knight Ridder reporters told us at the time, one of the few organizations that systematically and independently set out to challenge the claims of the administration, as the Knight Ridder reporters told us at the time, as my colleagues and I reported in our documentary on PBS, Buying the War, as Scott McClellan has now confessed, and as the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed just this week, the administration, with the complicity of the dominant media, conducted a political propaganda campaign using erroneous and misleading intelligence to deceive Americans into supporting an unprovoked war on another country, leading to a conflict that, instead of being over quickly and bloodlessly as predicted, continues to this day into its sixth year.

    We now know that a neoconservative is an arsonist who sets the house on fire and six years later boasts that no one can put it out. You couldn’t find — you couldn’t find a more revealing measure of the state of the dominant media today than the continuing ubiquitous presence on the air and in print of the very pundits and experts, self-selected message multipliers of a disastrous foreign policy, who got it all wrong in the first place. It just goes to show, when the bar is low enough, you can never be too wrong.

    Of course, there is another measure of the state of our dominant media, and that’s something William Cope and I know very well. There’s another measure of the state of our dominant media, and that’s their own state of denial about their role, as what McClellan himself calls deferential complicit enablers. I say William Cope and I know, because for a long time he and our family were in denial about addiction. I didn’t want to believe it. He didn’t want to tell us. And he almost came to deep and permanent grief, and we almost were broken as a family, because we were in denial. What you don’t know can kill you.

    And yet, the press remains in denial about their role in passing on the government’s unverified claims as facts, while, as Danny Schechter reminded us in a brilliant piece on Huffington Post this week, “blocking out any other narrative.” That’s the great danger. It’s not simply that they dominate the story we tell ourselves publicly every day. It’s that they don’t allow other alternative competing narratives to emerge, against which the people could measure the veracity of all the claims. Now the dominant media is saying, ”Well, we did ask. We did do our job by asking tough questions during the run-up to the war.” But I’ve been through the transcripts. And I’ll tell you, you will find very few tough questions. And if you come across them, you will discover that they were asked of the wrong people.

    That’s not an original thought with me. Last night on Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, we had John Walcott, who’s the bureau chief of now McClatchy, then Knight Ridder papers; his star — one of his star reporters, Jonathan Landay; and the editor of — editor-in-chief of Editor & publisher, Greg Mitchell, who’s written a good book about what happened five years ago. And it was John Walcott who took on his own colleagues in the dominant media and said, “They asked a lot of questions, but they asked even the right questions of the wrong people.” They were asked of the sources who had cooked the intelligence books in the first place or who had memorized the talking points sent over by Scott McClellan and the White House, who were prepared to answer every tough question with a soft evasion or an easy lie, swallowed by a gullible questioner.

    Sadly, in many respects, the Fourth Estate has become the fifth column of democracy, colluding with the powers that be in a culture of deception that subverts the thing most necessary to freedom, and that is the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary PBS journalist Bill Moyers, giving the address at the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis. We’ll come back to the conclusion of the speech and a confrontation he has with Fox News in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to the conclusion of the address of PBS journalist Bill Moyers.

    BILL MOYERS: For the media’s all-the-war-all-the-time coverage of the contrived and manufactured war, Dick Cheney even dropped into a post-invasion media dinner to thank them for their service. Just the other day, this same Dick Cheney was tossed softball after softball at an event at the National Press Club, where he drew laughter when he said, no, he wouldn’t be reading Scott McClellan’s book. The blind leading the blind. What you don’t know can kill you or someone else’s child.

    What do we need to know? We need to know we’re in trouble. Napoleon said to his secretary in the thick of battle, “If the news from the front is good, wake me — don’t wake me, let me sleep. If the news from the front is bad, wake me, we must act immediately.” My friends, you don’t need to be a reporter with your eyes open to see the news from the front is bad. But I, as a reporter, see it all the time. I report the assault on nature evidenced in coal mining that tears the tops off mountains and dumps them into rivers, sacrificing the health and lives of those in the valleys to short-term profit. And I see a link between that process and the stock market frenzy, which scorns long-term investments, genuine savings, in favor of quick turnovers and speculative bubbles whose inevitable bursting leaves insiders with stuffed pockets and millions of small shareholders, stockholders, pensioners, employees and homeowners out of luck, out of work and out of hope.

    And then I see a connection between those disasters and the repeal of regulations designed to prevent exactly that kind of human and economic damage. Who pushed for the removal of that firewall? The political marionettes in Washington who dance to the speculators’ tune and who are well rewarded with indispensable campaign contributions and lucrative lobbying jobs when they have delivered the goods. Even honorable opponents of the practice get trapped in the web of a system that can effectively limit politics to those who can afford to spend millions of dollars in their race for office and who know that their careers depend on pleasing their donors while deserting their voters.

    Then I draw a line to the statistics that show real wages lagging behind prices, the compensation of corporate barons soaring to heights unequalled anywhere among other industrialized democracies, the greatest income inequality since the Roaring ’20s, the relentless cheese pairing of federal funds devoted to public schools to retraining workers whose jobs have been explored and to programs of healthcare, all of which snatch away the ladder by which Americans of scant means but willing hands and hearts could work and save their way up to some middle-class security.

    And I connect those numbers to campaigns by our triumphant reactionaries against labor unions and the higher minimum wage and to their success in reframing the tax codes so as to strip them of their progressive character, laying the burdens of the social contract on a shrinking middle class, awash in credit card debt, as workers struggle to keep up with the rising cost of healthcare, affordable housing and college tuitions for their children. While huge inheritances go untouched, tax shelters abroad are legalized, and the rich get richer and with each increase in their wealth are able to buy themselves more influence over those who make and execute the laws.

    Edward R Murrow told his generation of journalists, no one can eliminate their prejudices, just recognize them. Here is my bias: extremes of wealth and poverty cannot be reconciled with a truly just society. Capitalism breeds great inequality that is destructive, unless tempered by an intuition for equality, which is the heart of democracy. When the state becomes the guardian of power and privilege to the neglect of justice for the people who have neither power nor privilege, you can no longer claim to have a representative government.

    Read historian Gordon Wood’s landmark book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. “America discovered its greatness,” he writes, “by creating a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their workaday concerns and their pecuniary pursuits of happiness,” a democracy that changes the lives of “hitherto neglected and despised masses of common labouring people,” people like Henry Moyers from Texas and Oklahoma and Joe Davidson from Texas, men who worked their hearts out and their hands through calluses believing in a country where ordinary people, irrespective of their father’s or mother’s wealth, had a chance to rise, succeed and contribute. It’s going the other way. You will search the dominant media largely in vain for journalism that tells the truth about the fading of the American dream.

    As conglomerates swallow up newspapers, magazines, publishing houses and broadcast outlets, news organizations are folded into entertainment divisions. The “news hole” in the print media shrinks to make room for ads, celebrities, nonsense and propaganda, and the news we need to know slips from sight.

    So it’s up to you to tell the truth about this country we love. It’s up to you to tell the truth about what’s happening to ordinary people. It’s up to you to remind us that democracy only works when ordinary people claim it as their own. It’s up to you to write the story of America that leaves no one out. And it’s up to you to rekindle the patriot’s dream. Arlo Guthrie, remember? “Living now here but for fortune placed by fate’s mysterious schemes. Who’d believe we’re the ones asked to rekindle the patriot’s dream? Arise, destiny, time runs short. All of your patience has heard their retort. Hear us now, for alone we can’t seem to rekindle the patriot’s dream…But perhaps too much is being asked of too few. You and your children with nothing to do, hear us now, for alone we can’t seem to try to rekindle the patriot’s dream.”

    Perhaps too much is being asked of too few, but you’re not alone, remember? Look around. You’re not alone, and you know what we need to know. So go tell it on the mountains and in the cities. From your websites and laptops, tell it. From the street corners and coffeehouse, tell it. From delis and diners, tell it. From the workshop and the bookstore, tell it. On campus, at the mall, the synagogue, sanctuary and mosque, tell it. Tell it where you can, when you can and while you can. Tell America what we need to know, and we may just rekindle the patriot dream. Good luck to one and all.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Moyers at the National Conference for Media Reform.

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